What is Trident for?

Norman Dombey

  • The Future of the UK’s Strategic Nuclear Deterrent: The White Paper, Cm. 6994
    Stationery Office, 140 pp, £13.50, December 2006, ISBN 0 10 169942 5
  • The Future of the UK’s Strategic Nuclear Deterrent: The White Paper. Ninth Report, House of Commons Defence Committee, HC 225-I
    Stationery Office, 88 pp, £14.50, March 2007, ISBN 978 0 215 03281 2

The prime minister made it clear that except where Her Majesty’s Government may decide that supreme national interests are at stake, these British forces will be used for the purposes of international defence of the Western Alliance in all circumstances.

Harold Macmillan,
21 December 1962

Harold Macmillan’s statement was made during a visit to the Bahamas to meet President Kennedy, hurriedly arranged after the US government cancelled the air-launched Skybolt missile, which it had promised to sell to the UK. Macmillan persuaded Kennedy, in the face of opposition from the Pentagon, to sell the US’s new submarine-launched Polaris missile to the UK instead, at a very favourable price, provided Britain supplied the submarines and the nuclear warheads. There was a further condition. Macmillan noted in his diary that ‘I have agreed to make our present bomber force (or part of it) and our Polaris force (when it comes) a Nato force for general purposes. But I have reserved absolutely the right of HMG to use it independently for “supreme national interest”.’ So, in normal circumstances, the Polaris fleet was not quite ‘our independent nuclear deterrent’, as Tony Blair described it in his foreword to the December 2006 White Paper on the renewal of Polaris’s replacement, Trident.

The Nassau statement goes into some detail about the use of the Polaris force ‘for the purposes of international defence’: it would be ‘part of a Nato nuclear force and targeted in accordance with Nato plans’. In a crisis the Supreme Allied Commander Europe (Saceur), always an American general, would take command of Nato forces, including nuclear forces. Indeed, the structure of Nato’s nuclear forces is predicated on US control. For example, in 2005 Nato had 130 B61 bombs at Ramstein air force base in Germany, 90 for delivery by the US and 40 by the German air force. How can Germany possess nuclear weapons when it is a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) as a non-weapon state? The answer is that the NPT was very carefully worded to allow it: the US owns all 130 warheads, and if a crisis arises, Saceur would take command of both US and Bundeswehr forces at Ramstein and get his orders from Washington. There are US warheads in Turkey, Italy, Belgium and Holland, all assigned to Nato under similar arrangements. There are also 110 B61s stored at RAF Lakenheath, set up to be delivered by US F-15E aircraft, even though since 1998 the RAF itself no longer has a nuclear mission. Originally, the B61s were to be used in accordance with Nato’s first-strike nuclear doctrine against a massive attack by the Red Army on West Germany or West Berlin. It is no longer clear what these weapons are for.

Which brings us to Trident. ‘For 50 years,’ Blair begins his preface to the White Paper,

our independent nuclear deterrent has provided the ultimate assurance of our national survival. For most of that time, during the Cold War, its purpose was clear, though not without controversy. Today’s world is different. Many of the old certainties and divisions of the Cold War are gone. We cannot predict the way the world will look in 30 or 50 years’ time.

The full text of this essay is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in